Politics & Policy

In Britain, the Tories Settle on the Sweet Spot between Populism and Post-Democracy

(Reuters photo: Toby Melville)
Theresa May is strengthening both her party and democracy.

David Cameron made a quiet return to British politics late last week by giving a talk to American students in London on, among other topics, the question of Brexit. He blamed Brexit — and by extension his own resignation — on “populism.”

I am tempted — okay, I’ll yield to the temptation — to quote Dr. Johnson: “There are ten thousand stout fellows in the streets of London ready to fight to the death against Popery, though they know not whether it be a man or a horse.” Strike out “Popery” and insert “populism” (and maybe change London to Brussels) and you have the present state of establishment European politics in a nutshell.

Populism is the omnipotent demon responsible for all the defeats and humiliations that Brussels and mainstream political parties of Left and Right have suffered in the last year. It conjures up the picture of an unreasonable rage driving millions of voters to embrace wild impossible ideas and undermining common sense and political stability. It’s a useful label to attach to anything you happen to dislike.

Mr. Cameron undermined his own argument, however, by saying on the same occasion that he thought the European Union might eventually collapse because it is inextricably bound up with the single currency, the euro, which is inflicting recession and unemployment on southern Europe. All the same, he wanted Britain to remain in the EU on the grounds that it would make Britain more prosperous in the long run.

If populists can’t follow Cameron’s logic here — How to get Rich from Inside the Coming Euro-Collapse — they may have got something right. So let’s examine populism more closely — I began doing so last week — to see what it really is and where it takes us. We now have a good (but not infallible) guide in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, which devotes a number of articles and columns to the topic. And since I disagree with some of the points argued there, I should say that the issue — notably the articles by Ivan Krastev and Takis S. Pappas — is very illuminating and full of good arguments from several standpoints.

Now, my take last week was that “populism” was a portmanteau term for many different strands of opinion, each reflecting its own national situation, that were nonetheless rebelling against the mainstream parties, of Left and Right, which had increasingly formed a de facto progressive Europhiliac coalition both in the European parliament and in national capitals. In Brussels, moreover, the progressive coalition has become de jure: Since the last European elections, the socialists and the (center-right?) European People’s Party have combined to share the power, keep the populists down, and carry on integrating toward “more Europe.” They had to combine because the “populists,” despite being denounced hourly as dangerous fools, were gaining ground.

Got all that?

But what explains the populist rise? What had called forth these spirits from the vasty deep? The answer seems to be that they emerged through the growing tension in liberal democracy, which is what we call the broad Western system of government, between democracy and liberalism. Liberal democracy works as follows: At elections, majoritarian democracy produces a governing majority in parliaments and congresses; and between elections, liberal institutions such as courts and constitutional bills of rights are on hand to restrain a majority government from abusing its authority. That system worked pretty well while the democratic majorities ran the show, and the constitutional bodies intervened only very occasionally to say “Halt” or “Think again.” As the post-war world wore on, however, power drained from elected bodies like parliaments to non-accountable institutions such as courts and, since the end of the Cold War, to transnational and global organizations. As they became more powerful, moreover, the non-accountable liberal institutions became more ambitious, not merely restraining the majority but increasingly dictating law and policy to it on everything from same-sex marriage to the rules of war.

That was possible because progressive-minded elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power and largely sympathized with the policies it promoted. Being human, they rather liked that it made it easier for them to restructure society as they wished and, if necessary, to override the apparent wishes of the voters. Of course, elites on left and right differed with each other on some policies, usually concerning tax and spending, which therefore remained real political disputes on which democracy “worked.” But they agreed with each other on policies such as mass immigration, Euro-integration, political correctness, multiculturalism, the spread of ethnic and gender quotas enforced legally and informally by a large bureaucracy, the application of anti-discrimination laws to expressions of opinion in ways that narrowed free speech, and much more. If the voters resisted such policies or sought to reverse them, the party leaderships kept them out of politics by simply not discussing them or, if discussion was unavoidable, by engaging in kabuki politics that never resulted in real change.

Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers in a democratic politics, becoming merely an equal player with all these other forces, though no one was indiscreet enough to say so. Majoritarian democracy mutated gradually into a system that John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which the elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their representatives in parliament or Congress. That’s more obvious in Europe because the transfer of power from democratic bodies to elites is also a transfer from the nation-state to a faraway transnational bureaucracy in Brussels. It therefore arouses and offends patriotism as well as democratic sentiment.

It’s also true that democratic politics has long been more vigorous and less deferential in the English-speaking world than in continental Europe (though the long sulk over Brexit by Remainers suggests that they have imbibed some of the anti-democratic European spirit). Much European opinion simply took for granted that politics was a game for the elites in which the change of stadium was no great matter. And this gradual emergence of post-democracy was further concealed by the fact that its institutions all have the same names as when they were parts of a simple majoritarian democracy.

Voters, however, could not be deceived indefinitely by these appearances. Over time they realized that, for whatever reason, their representatives seemed unwilling or unable to deliver on their promises. Nothing ever seemed to change, including those things that their MPs and congressmen had explicitly promised would change. After enough disappointments — this process has been going on for more than 30 years — the voters began to switch their support from their traditional “legacy” parties to new parties of Left and Right. The result is the recent eruption of “populist” uprisings across the advanced world.

An apprentice political sociologist could plot these changes along a single line in an impressive social-science diagram. At the left extreme of the spectrum is post-democracy; at the right extreme, populism; in the center lies simple majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move toward post-democracy; and they equally decrease in number and importance as you move toward populism. But the more that power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker that democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more that populism is likely to demand the removal of obstacles to the will of the people.

After being disappointed for decades, populists don’t like to be told that yet again they can’t have the policies they voted for. On the other hand, the more that majority rule is the driving force of democracy, the more populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate. “In short, populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism,” as the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde pointed out some years ago. “It criticizes the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their re-politicization.” And it therefore has a stronger case than is usually granted in public debate.

Two general responses to the “populism versus post-democracy” debate prevail among those taking part in it. Most political scientists — and most of those writing for the Journal of Democracy — tend to see populism as the greater threat to democracy. They become exercised when a government challenges a constitutional court’s decisions or proposes to abolish an independent central bank. They rarely seem doubtful about whether either judges or technical experts should be the final court of appeal in political or constitutional disputes. The opposite point of view — that post-democracy is the greater threat since it replaces majority rule with a disguised progressive oligarchy — is less often heard. That is perhaps because, as I observed above, its institutions are the familiar institutions of the democratic state acting in an undemocratic spirit or behind a veil of constitutional respectability. It’s a confusing factor that has obscured a serious development.

That has changed, and not only in Britain, since the Brexit vote provoked quite a number of pro-EU Remain voters into open expressions of hostility to democracy. We have all become accustomed to (and some people have become enraged at) the growing tendency for major political decisions to be decided by non-democratic or supra-national bodies — for instance, holding second referendums to get the result the Eurocrats wanted. But we talked about it less as a general tendency than as a series of isolated exceptions. Until yesterday we all spoke well of democracy. Yet there were odd linguistic hints that this was changing: The word “majoritarian,” for instance, was very often a pejorative in newspaper editorials and ministerial speeches. Big Think pieces would often contrast majority rule with minority rights, preferring the latter, though in fact the stronger, more significant, and never-mentioned contrast is that between minority rule and majority rights.

But the post-Brexit debate, liberated by passion, has clarified things. Language has now caught up with the shift of power from democracy to liberal oligarchy. Characteristic Remain arguments are that serious and complex political questions should be left for “experts” to decide because the voters are too old, too ignorant, and too misled by campaign arguments to make a valid choice. Some Remainers have gone further and invited the courts to intervene to put right both voters and MPs who accept the referendum verdict. And it’s noticeable that those who speak with deepest contempt of the voters often produce anti-democratic arguments of a very low intellectual quality, as I noted here. Candid and even principled hostility to democracy is now common in polite circles.

The Brexit vote provoked quite a number of pro-EU Remain voters into open expressions of hostility to democracy.

This is almost certainly a mistake by the new anti-democrats. Despite some evidence that democracy enjoys falling support among young people throughout the West, that is probably an expression of boredom with politics more than one of political elitism. Like all political ideas, democracy suffers occasionally from disillusionment and disappointment, but it almost always grows more popular when it is under serious attack. It has an enduring mystique, which the Remainers and even the courts are foolishly challenging. The result is likely to be a popular political reaction in favor of majority-rule politics. And, in line with what I have argued earlier, the reaction could take two forms — the populist and the democratic. Indeed, it has taken exactly those two forms in the last week in Holland and Britain.

In Holland, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), was convicted of discriminating against an ethnic group. At a political meeting, he had asked whether those present wanted more Moroccan immigrants; in effect, he led them in a chant of No. The PVV is a populist Euro-skeptic party that wants to reduce immigration levels into Holland. But both Wilders and the crowd were expressing what is a majority opinion in the country at times. What the court was doing, therefore, was criminalizing a majority opinion, presumably in the hope of making it unrespectable and deterring people from voting for Wilders and the PVV. It’s a classic post-democratic case of a liberal institution seeking to remove a popular opinion from democratic debate. It happens fairly often in Europe; Wilders himself has faced similar trials before. What is significant here is that the court, having found him guilty, imposed no punishment on him. That was a recognition that its power to stigmatize has seriously eroded, and that imposing a penalty would only make a martyr of him. Even so, the PVV’s popularity has risen still further since the conviction, and it is quite likely that Wilders will enter a coalition government after the next election. The larger lesson is that the more post-democratic a political system is, the more anti-democratic it will seem, and the more it will generate successful populist parties.

The second example was the result of the Sleaford special election in the English Midlands (following a Tory loss in the middle-class Remainer territory of Richmond near London the previous week). This was the first election in Middle England, however. It took place since the post-Brexit debate had summoned anti-democratic sentiment. And it followed the annual Tory conference, at which Theresa May firmly committed the Tories to implementing Brexit.

Brexit in the U.K. is not therefore the outsider populist issue often pictured in the media; it has been integrated into the party system during and since the referendum. All parties are internally divided on it, but the broad picture is that the Tories are solidly for Brexit, with about 15 Remain ultras; UKIP are all Brexiteers; Liberal Democrats are all Remainers; and Labour is officially for Leave but with a majority itching to join Remain if they can do so without breaking up entirely. Once the courts get out of the way, it will proceed through the parliamentary process to Article 50 and the statute book with all the opportunities for debate and amendments that the system offers. But MPs wanted to know something that would affect their debates: Which way would Middle England swing at Sleaford?

#related#It was a clear Tory victory — the best by-election result for a Tory government in the last 30 years — with a 54 percent share of the vote in a field of five serious candidates (and innumerable eccentrics let out for the day). UKIP came in second, with 13 percent; the Liberal Democrats, third, with 11 percent, and Labour limped home with 10 percent. If we calculate the vote on a pro- versus anti-Brexit basis, the two pro-Brexit parties won 67 percent, against 11 percent for Remain. That reflects the latest national poll from YouGov, which shows that a steady 68 percent say that Brexit should go ahead, versus 22 percent who say that it shouldn’t. One reason for this clear Tory victory is that the Leave vote nationally is about 60 percent Tory; it is rallying to its natural party, which itself is now returning from Cameroon sympathies to Euro-skepticism. But the poll also shows that democratic respect for the referendum result also explains why half of the original Remain voters now think that Brexit should be implemented. In other words, the Tories have put themselves on the right side of the mystique of democracy and are winning votes as a result.

If Brexit has been integrated into the British party system, it is also changing that system fundamentally. Labour’s fourth-place finish suggests a very gloomy future. As long as the party cannot make up its mind on Brexit, its voters will start to leave in two directions: Remainers to the Lib-Dems, Leavers to either UKIP or the Tories. That puts Theresa May in the catbird seat. She may lose a few parliamentary dissidents in the coming year, but her reward would be millions of new voters. By embracing the decision of the referendum, she has made the Tories the natural governing party of democratic Britain. She has simultaneously strengthened British democracy, defending Brexit against the post-democracy of the Lib-Dems and rescuing it from the populist arms of UKIP. Not least, she has completely undermined the pol-sci consensus on populism.

But only if she sticks to her guns.